The Transformation of FamilySearch.org

October 8, 2015  - by 

“Fifteen years ago Apple was a beleaguered tech company. Today, it is a transformative leader across multiple industries (computers, smart phones, music, movies, wearable technology),” said Robert Kehrer, senior product manager for FamilySearch.org’s search experience. He believes that FamilySearch, a nonprofit and a world leader in the growing and expanding family history industry, is also undergoing a fundamental transformation. He knows because as a former manager at Apple for most of the last decade, he participated in the change there and clearly sees the similarities. I recently had the opportunity to talk with Kehrer following an industry presentation he made to hundreds of family history enthusiasts.

Kehrer explained that FamilySearch is seeking to change the very landscape of genealogy. “[FamilySearch] is a different organization today—focused on the customer and quickly delivering value,” said Kehrer. “Companies that change the fastest to meet customer needs today are the most effective.”

He compared FamilySearch.org’s transformation to a house that has undergone extensive renovation from its roof to its foundation. “The only thing that has changed with FamilySearch.org is, quite frankly, everything. It has been completely reinvented over the last few years,” Kehrer said. “It boggles your mind to think that it’s a free service.”

He believes FamilySearch.org has one of the best search-engine experiences anywhere, hands down, including a robust and very accurate hinting feature that pulls information from six billion records on the site and matches it to a patron’s personal data. The collaboration-based FamilySearch Family Tree, he believes, is the largest and best-sourced family tree of its kind on the Internet. Users add 250,000 new sources and 25,000 new names a day.

Kehrer explained there are two integrated mobile apps, a Memories feature (a simple tool for attaching sources to ancestor profiles), incredible help systems, a phenomenal torrent of new records daily, emerging partnerships, and a totally new indexing experience. And that’s just getting him started.

He explained the current focus of much of the product development is focused on the following customer needs:

  • More records—faster
  • The ability to preserve and share personal family records online
  • More mobile-focused resources (ability to do more on cell phones and tablets)
  • More accurate and full-featured search experiences
  • Online sources gathered easily and completely at a patron’s fingertips
  • A genealogically sound FamilySearch Family Tree
  • Integrated resources with FamilySearch partners and industry leaders

Since 2013, FamilySearch.org has seen a 234 percent increase in patrons who are members of the Church and a whopping 1,035 percent increase from the general public. Kehrer believes these increases are due to improved patron experiences. Record collections on the website have nearly doubled since 2012 (from 1,033 to 2,019), and searchable indexed names have grown from 750 million in 2010 to 5.2 billion today.

FamilySearch is expanding its 293 digital camera teams worldwide, and the effort to convert the microfilm in the Granite Mountain Records Vault to digital images is forging ahead, which adds new content online at an impressive rate.

FamilySearch’s new indexing program—a community-based initiative to engage online volunteers to make the deluge of digital record images easily searchable online by name and other variables—is currently being rolled out in waves. Since it is web-based, the biggest selling point is that it will run on all Internet-enabled devices tablet-sized and larger. It is also collaborative, meaning volunteers and organizations can create their own groups to tackle projects of interest, track their progress, and communicate with each other. And the new interface enables users to structure the way they view images and enter data according to personal preferences.

Kehrer is also excited about automated indexing, a technology FamilySearch is developing that scours ASCI-type (typeset) historical records and intuitively index them by pulling researchable data out of documents. This technology will vastly increase the publication of indexed collections and free online volunteers to index older, handwritten records. FamilySearch publishes over 250 million new records each year.

As a product manager, Kehrer’s primary responsibility is FamilySearch.org’s search systems. A new addition to the search experience is FamilySearch’s evolving hinting feature—a service that automatically scours the rapidly growing body of historical records for the ancestors you have in FamilySearch Family Tree and presents their records to you. “It is absolutely astounding how effective and accurate this [hinting] tool is,” said Kehrer. “Think about it. It is working for you when you’re not. It’s finding your ancestors in records that the average person might have never considered. And it’s a piece of cake to add them to your family tree.”

The location-specific research pages, accessed when you click an area in the world map in Records Search, bring together location-relevant content from across the FamilySearch.org site (digital image collections, indexed records, and catalog, wiki, and help content). And when you look at an image of a historical document, it now shows the indexed data at the bottom of the same screen. “Seeing the image and the indexed results together on the same screen significantly enhances user efficiency,” said Kehrer.

When asked what is coming around the corner, Kehrer said to expect more impressive tools and more functionality for the FamilySearch mobile apps, Memories feature, online catalog, and partner initiatives. Advancements in search capability will be applied to all these applications. Microfilm images and indices will be accessible directly from the FamilySearch catalog and will enable users to browse quickly through digital images or search the film’s indexed records.

Try the enhanced search experience at FamilySearch.org.

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Comments

  1. I wonder how long before the amount of data in familysearch enables family trees to be built automatically. For example, where an otherwise unique name appears in several censuses in the same county with the same birth year and with a matching birth and/or marrige and/or death, the links to parents, spouse and children could surely be generated automatically.

  2. Paul, all the effort is very much appreciated. One function that would help a great deal is the ability to suggest alternate spellings on indexed records. Many of those for south Louisiana need some adjustments, otherwise the people will likely not be found when searching.

    1. Absolutely–Please add this function. It doesn’t take away the indexed information, just adds alternatives. Ancestry.com has it and I have used numerous times-some due ot errors of the indexer, and some due to errors of the census enumerator or document creator.

  3. I am so very grateful that FamSrch is developing all these helps. I used to do research the old way & appreciate the difference. HOWEVER, could we PLEASE have a little warning sign at the sign-in front when there is improvements being done. It is so frustrating to find a time to sit down to work & find things not functioning that we don’t even know are due to “internal improvement in work”. I know the improvements make things better, but we users would REALLY REALLY like some WARNING at the sign-in stage that we can’t expect our on-line efforts on FSTree to work as well as usual due to wonderful better stuff being added. Thanks for your good work!

  4. Great things are happening at FamilySearch daily. One change that is long overdue, is the ability to correct indexed records.

  5. I’m loving the function that someone can’t just delete a person anymore that has sources attached to it. I found someone in my reserve file that had been deleted before this feature came into existence. I restored this person this morning with their 11 sources attached that prove that he, indeed, is the correct person in the family.

  6. I am entering a new trasition for me. Up until now when I found someone that needed permission to do the temple work for them I have pasted them by. Not this time. The people on the other side of the vail won’t let me sleep at night for wanting their work done no bones about it sense Its Halloween time.
    Could we please find a way to put things together in one spot so I don’t have to go all over the place to find the information required for permission granted? As in I have to go to public records for one thing and another place for something else. Could it be in one spot?
    Thank you!

  7. This is exciting! It’s great to be on a leading team as FamilySearch is. As a FHC director I find it both mind boggling in the amount and quality of features being added and overwhelming to spread appreciation of the growth throughout the 3 stakes and community that our FHC serves.

    Thanks for the progress.

    1. Hi Roy, My husband and I are also FHC directors of a Center that serves three Stakes. It is challenging to encourage usage of the center to its capacity. It might be good for both of us to share ideas. Respond if you would like to share.

  8. Can’t wait for all the birth records of New Jersey and Pennsylvania from the early 1600’s through 1900!
    I know when my fourth great grandparents were born it is on their tombstones, but their parents have evaded me for years.
    What you have made accessible confirms their locations through US census records after they married. Yet even the marriage is not to be found. Nor the actual birth of their children, which I have a partial record, since my 3rd great grandparents recorded that for me.
    On another line, my dads mother all of their record are clear and well recorded in the awesome Plymouth Colony records. I have 8 direct ancestors on the Mayflower.
    Yet, Pennsylvania on my fathers father’s side just seems to be lost from my searching. The problem is their births occurred during the Revolutionary War Period. But since my Mayflowers records have been easy to find (relatively so) I do hope to find records that seemed to be in records of books etc. that I must actually BUY, just to see “if” their names “might” be in one of their historical society’s (costly membership) books that I cannot view online.
    I am excited with the wonderful progress being made. I love the newer probate and Will records.
    Keep up the work you do so all may be successful.

  9. I don’t know that I am impressed with “mobile apps” as a data contributor using “my mobile app” [as explained to me] removed a child’s data from parents to another set of parents, who were instead the Uncle & Aunt. In fairness to this data contributor though, the same data has been “changed” over the last 4 years. I have to change it back which means time spent doing that is not time spent in research & indexing. If only the data contributors would read the source citations, notes & discussions before changing!!

    1. Technology especially the most advanced and thought through technology in the hands of the inept/inattentive will have lingering effects until such time as they become adept and attentive. Just say’n…
      One of the uncomfortabilities of progress.